Monuments of Repentance

We set out on a gray Wednesday, ten students bundled up against the wind. Out task was to explore the mnemonic landscape of the area right around Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum.

One of the Philadelphia firsts commemorated at Penn’s Landing.

What we found was a celebratory landscape, marking everything from Philadelphia’s firsts (among them first mustard, first computer), to its immigrants from Ireland and Scotland,  the achievements of Christopher Columbus and the veterans of the Philadelphia area. Because we did this exploration just a few days after Veterans Day, these sites were adorned with flags, flowers, and signs advertising PhillyMemorials.com.

We also saw markers commemorating landscape developers, past mayors, Schwenkfeldian exiles, the GLOMAR submarine salvager, and–in the only commemoration explicitly of a woman–the liberation of Jane Johnson. Expanding our frame of reference, we recognized other sorts of marked spaces, from graffiti to the lone concrete pi-sign shaped support for an abandoned gondola that would have crossed the Delaware River.

In “Commemoration, Conversation, and Public Feeling in America Today,” her afterword to Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide, edited by Seth C. Bruggeman, Erika Doss argues that commemoration is discursive, that it is the source and result of public conversation. Yet monumentalism, as it has been practiced in the United States since the 19th century, has often resisted conversation. I wrote a bit about this over on the Anabaptist Historians blog a few weeks ago and have thought about it more, through this monumental walking tour and a really great conversation about Confederate monuments over the Thanksgiving holiday with Virginian cousins. The short story is that the minimal context and seeming agelessness of most American monuments makes them declarative rather than discursive. If these statues communicate anything beyond authority, they tell a legend and brook no reader response. This can be seen, I think, in the debate over Confederate monuments, which has largely (and successfully) been framed as liberals against history and tradition, rather than initiating a broader conversation about the legacy of a South defeated while defending slavery.

The Christopher Columbus monument.

The monuments around Penn’s Landing are largely of this same school of thought, with some exceptions. The towering obelisk-esque monument to Christopher Columbus is an example of declarative monument, towering over everything around it, even the trees of the park in which it sits. Monuments commemorating immigration from Ireland and Scotland may elicit storytelling of immigrant experiences and family histories, such discourse would have to overcome the prominent donor recognition walls and panels that dwarf the monuments themselves in terms of square footage. The main message of these monuments seems to be “We paid for this nice stone plaza and these plaques.”

A donor acknowledgement at the Scottish Immigrants memorial

Nearby are also the Philadelphia memorials to combatants in various foreign wars. While parts of these memorials are of the older declarative school, several embrace more recent aesthetics in memorials. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, for instance seems to be a touchstone, as the Philadelphia tribute to Vietnam veterans echoes its sweeping tapered wall and the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial employs the highly reflective black marble. Lin’s memorial is also directly captured in the soil of Philadelphia, in a capsule containing rubbings from the memorial of casualties from Philadelphia. Yet in fundamental ways, these resist conversation. The Korean War monument incorporates substantial text and photographs in relief on one side and nearly all of the exterior surfaces are covered in symbols of various military units and donors to the memorialization. The memorial falls into the trap of many exhibits, there’s simply too much to read.

The Philadelphia Korean War Memorial

What we didn’t find on the Philadelphia waterfront–or what remains of the waterfront after the Route 95 construction decades ago–were “sites of shame.” Erika Doss uses this term to describe monuments such as those remembering slavery, lynchings, and the Salem witch trials, which activate and acknowledge viewers’ emotions about shameful pasts. I worry, a little, that some folks might see “shame” and immediately think “guilt,” an emotion that I find paralyzing. I wonder if there’s a way to frame that shame as a call to action while also accepting responsibility. I propose the theological concept of repentance, which calls not only for admission of complicity/responsibility for shortcomings, but also action to repair the damage done.

Public historians have often considered the role of emotion in conversations about troubling and complicated pasts, with more emphasis as museums and historic sites broaden interpretation beyond celebratory stories. As Americans likewise try to diversity the mnemonic landscape, I suspect more of these sites of shame will crop up, like Bryan Stevenson’s proposed massive memorial to lynching victims and “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration” museum, both slated to open in 2018. I suspect that both of these projects will call visitors (especially those with racial privilege) to repentance, whether they articulate it as such or not.

The Olympia is visible through these trees from the Philadelphia Vietnam War Memorial

So where is there room for repentance in Penn’s Landing? As I walked around the Vietnam War memorial, I turned East, and through the trees of the Spruce Street Harbor Park, I could glimpse the crow’s nest and smokestacks of the Cruiser Olympia, semi-permanently moored as an exhibit of the Independence Seaport Museum. The story of the Olympia, as told via interpretation aboard, is a story of valorous action in World War I, but the broader sweep of its history, which also includes action as the flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, anti-bolshevik actions in Murmansk after WWI, and various humanitarian missions, is one of imperialism. The boat can be see as a symbol of the United States exerting its power around the world in a variety of forms. Seen in the context of the monuments to Cold War-era American military intervention in Asia, the Olympia becomes a harbinger of the dangers of imperial ambition. While the American memorial landscape has many domestic injustices to tackle in the near future, if the time ever comes when Philadelphians want to grapple with their place in the American misdeeds abroad, somewhere within sight of the Olympia makes sense for such a monument of repentance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *